Friday, July 26, 2013

Book Review - The Bernie Gunther Series

The first books in the series

These books have nothing to do with wargaming or warfare in general  (and nothing at all to do with Napoleonic wargaming!), but as a series of murder mysteries firmly rooted in a historical setting, these books are second to none. The mysteries are your standard whodunnits, but the details of the period are what set these stories apart from your average crime novels.

The protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is your typical hard, cynical, wise-cracking cop/private eye with an eye for a dame in distress, but the setting of early/mid twentieth century Germany is what makes me come back for the next installment. Bernhard Gunther has seen and done it all; his early adult life was spent in the trenches of the Western Front in the First World War, his young wife died in the Spanish Flu epidemic in the early twenties after which he joined the Berlin police force. The stories span the period from the Weimar republic when Bernie has to investigate murders against the backdrop of political violence and the interference of well connected colleagues. After the Nazis take power in 1933, he resigns rather than be forced out as his anti-Nazi, socialist politics make him persona-non-grata. After a short stint as the house detective at the Adlon Hotel, he sets up as a PI. His private investigation business flourishes with the spate of disappearances of socially and politically undesirable people under the pre-war Nazi regime. Obviously this line of work is dangerous, but his skills as an investigator and his lack of political connection bring him to the attention of the Nazi head of police, Heydrich, who, after giving him an offer he can't refuse, uses him as his own tame detective, before ordering him back into the police. With the coming of the war Bernie is drafted into the SD, the SS police, and is shipped off to the Eastern Front where he witnesses all the horrors of that theatre of war. Taken prisoner by the Soviets after the war, he manages to escape and re-establish himself as a private eye in Berlin, before he is forced into exile in Argentina after he is set up for a murder he didn't commit. Forced out of Argentina when he learns too much, he ends up in Cuba where he finds himself entangled in the murky world of organised crime and anti-communist espionage, reluctantly ending up as an informer/enforcer for the mob in Havana. Whether or not Bernie manages to make it back to his beloved Berlin is not yet clear, but I'm hanging out to read the latest installment A Man Without Breath (I suppose he must, as the novels are narrated in the first person).

The stories aren't a chronological recounting of his career, but dip forwards and backwards through time as characters appear and re-appear, contrasting their pre-war roles with what they did during the war and how they have reconciled the two in the post-war era. There are a host of historical characters that appear, from the Weimar police hierarchy and (in)famous faces of the decadent Berlin scene of the roaring twenties, to political figures of the period. Incidents like the burning of the Reichstag and Kristalnacht make appearances almost as important as the historical characters themselves.

These stories make me want to find out more about the Weimar period and how a seemingly democratic and otherwise liberal society managed to end up under one of the worst totalitarian regimes Europe, and the world, has seen.

Highly recommended!


  1. Oh oh! Excellent choice indeed. I discovered Kerr around 5-6 years ago (translated into Spanish) and the books are so good! My return to to crime novels since my early youth when I devoured all Agatha Christie's books during my school summer holidays (no Internet or iPad then... only bike riding, swiming pool or beach games, and reading and painting Tamiya's and Airfix's when the rest of Spaniards were having siesta

  2. That sounds like an truly amazing read there Rosbif and one I an going to look out for


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